By Keith Norbury

Naming the proposed new six-lane international bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit after hockey legend Gordie Howe is such a fitting tribute. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Howe left his native land as a teenager to pursue his hockey passion in the U.S. Mr. Hockey is as familiar in his adopted Detroit, where he played the majority of his three-decades pro career, as he is in Canada. As a posting on the website of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority notes, the $2.2-billion project will reflect Gordie Howe’s “strength, endurance and excellence.”

The honour, announced this May, is fitting for another good reason: During his storied career, Howe forged a reputation not only as a deft stickhandler but also as a hard-nosed player who never backed down from a fight. Advancing the bridge project has required plenty of slick stick-handling by politicians on both sides of the border and a willingness to battle an equally determined opponent.

That nemesis is Detroit businessman Matty Moroun, current owner of the Ambassador Bridge, the existing 86-year-old truck crossing that the new Gordie Howe Bridge is designed to replace. Mr. Moroun, who has long proposed a new six-lane bridge of his own to replace the four-lane Ambassador Bridge, “has been fighting tooth and nail” in court to block the publicly funded Gordie Howe Bridge, the CBC noted in late September following a court judgment. In that case, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer dismissed all but one of nine challenges that Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company had brought before the court. The ruling “further clears the way” for completion of the Gordie Howe Bridge, the CBC reported.

That premise “is completely erroneous,” Mickey Blashfield, Director of Governmental Relations for the Ambassador Bridge, told Canadian Sailings by phone, adding that “we’re continuing forward.” However, he declined to say anything else and instead asked for emailed questions. Canadian Sailings emailed questions to an address he provided, but did not receive a response by deadline.

P3 project has “tremendous” momentum

Regardless of what actions the Ambassador Bridge ownership takes, however, the Gordie Howe Bridge project “has got a tremendous amount of momentum at this point,” said Dr. Bill Anderson, Director of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor. “It certainly isn’t the case that if the owner of the Ambassador Bridge goes ahead and starts building a new bridge that this project (the Gordie Howe Bridge) would be cancelled,” Dr. Anderson said. “That’s not in the cards.” Building the new bridge is long overdue, he said. “This is the most important single trade link to Canada, which is a trading nation. Making this investment is really important to our economic future.”

The new bridge is so important to Canada, in fact, that the Canadian government is financing the entire project — including fronting US$550 million for all the work on the U.S. side, such as an interchange and highway upgrades. That’s because the Michigan legislature failed to approve financing for the state’s share the project, leaving state Gov. Rick Snyder to forge a side deal with the Canadian government in June 2012. As Dr. Anderson explained, that agreement enabled a governance structure for the bridge project “even if it didn’t give him (Mr. Snyder) any legislative authority to spend any state money on it.”

Mr. Moroun’s objection to Gov. Snyder’s deal also happens to be the one challenge that Judge Collyer did not dismiss. Her ruling left open a challenge under what’s called the Administrative Procedures Act that the signatories to the agreement had no authority under Michigan law. (The judge also stated in a footnote that Gov. Snyder “has filed a brief amicus curiae to support the authority of State actors.” She further noted, “At the point of a motion to dismiss, however, the Court gives credence to properly-pled facts in a complaint, ‘even if doubtful in fact.’”)

Court ruling pleases bridge authority

Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, the Canadian Crown corporation overseeing the Gordie Howe Bridge project, is “pleased that this portion of the outstanding issues are resolved,” said an email from Heather Grodin, the authority’s Vice-President of Communications and Stakeholder Relations. The Authority now anticipates the bridge will be in service in 2020, she said. It announced Oct. 14 that it had received responses from six North American and international teams to its July 20 request for qualifications to finance, design, build, operate, and maintain the crossing. Ms. Grodin did not provide any details about those RFQ submissions other than to say the Bridge Authority intends to short-list three of those teams and invite them each to respond to a request for proposals.

A presentation by the Bridge Authority this August revealed the bridge could be of either a suspension or cable-stayed design. It would have a clear span of 850 metres with no piers in the water, and a total length of 2.5 kilometres. The project also features ports of entry of 60 hectares on the U.S. side and 53 hectares on the Canadian side. The entire public-private partnership, or P3, procurement process is expected to take 18 months, Ms. Grodin said.

The RFP, which is more detailed than the RFQ, will require respondents to address the technical and financial aspects of the project, “including a fixed price and schedule,” she said. “Submissions will be rigorously evaluated according to pre-set criteria and a preferred proponent will be selected,” she added. The final step in the process will be the “financial close,” which sets the final price and schedule in a contract.

Separate from the P3 process, the Bridge Authority announced in August that it had selected Amico Infrastructures Inc. of Oldcastle, Ont. to complete a $59 million “Early Works” project at the Canadian port of entry site. These early works involve construction of a perimeter access road, utility relocations, and fill placement. “Having these activities completed prior to the start of work under the P3 project will help achieve the broader timeline for project completion,” Ms. Grodin said.

Potential remains for further road blocks

Dr. John Sutcliffe, a political scientist at the University of Windsor, said a completion date of 2020 for the Gordie Howe Bridge “is not unrealistic but there is always the potential for a legal case or some kind of political change” to derail the project. He noted, for instance, that Canadians just voted for a change of federal government. However, nobody expects new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, which made an election promise to ramp up infrastructure spending, to withdraw support for the Gordie Howe Bridge.

Dr. Sutcliffe, who published a paper on the intrigue surrounding the project this June in Public Sector Digest, said that discussions about a new bridge predate Sept. 11, 2001, when Jean Chrétien’s Liberals were still in power. “It has bipartisan support in Canada — provincial and federal,” Dr. Sutcliffe said. “I think pretty much everyone realizes how significant this is for Canada.”

Indeed, in her ruling Judge Collyer pointed out that in late 2000, federal, provincial and state agencies on both sides of the border “formed the Ontario-Michigan Border Transportation Partnership, which later was renamed the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) Partnership, to study transportation needs between Ontario and Michigan.” The judge also noted that initially the group focused on potential construction of the Ambassador Bridge’s “New Span” project and completing the Canadian portion of the Ambassador Bridge Gateway Project. So it’s easy to see how the Ambassador Bridge owners would be annoyed when Canada decided it wanted to alter course and build a publicly owned bridge.

Competition a likely scenario

Dr. Sutcliffe said he doesn’t think Mr. Moroun has any realistic chance of stopping the Gordie Howe Bridge project at this point. “But I think what becomes more realistic is that he has the chance to compete with a second span of his own,” Dr. Sutcliffe said. And that could lead to a price war on tolls — tolls the Canadian government is counting on to cover the cost of the bridge.

Governments have been saying all along that there should be competition and redundancy at such an important international crossing, Dr. Sutcliffe said. For example, the Canadian senate concluded in 2005 that a terrorist attack on the Ambassador Bridge would have the greatest impact on the North American economy of an attack on any piece of infrastructure on the continent, he said. However, local politicians on the Windsor side are concerned about the impact of the communities that would lie in the path of a new Ambassador bridge. “And the city has long fought that for those reasons — that the plaza would basically plunk down over a large chunk of west Windsor,” Dr. Sutcliffe said. And further complicating that, he said, are ongoing court battles with the City of Windsor over properties Mr. Maroun owns in the city, and whether or not their use as potential bridge accessories fall under municipal jurisdiction.

All that aside, Dr. Sutcliffe said he expects that Mr. Moroun will continue to pursue his own bridge project because he controls a lot of trucking. “That was the reason he bought the bridge in the first place, to facilitate his trucking industries,” Dr. Sutcliffe said. Many of those trucks cross the Ambassador from factories in and around Windsor to car plants in Detroit. As Judge Collyer observed in her recent judgement, studies estimate that the Gordie Howe bridge would divert about 75 per cent of truck traffic and 39 per cent of passenger traffic from the Ambassador Bridge. Clearly, the loss of such a significant market share would be problematic for the owner of the Ambassador bridge.

Privately owned bridge seen as a symbol

“It comes as a surprise to many that one of North America’s, and indeed the world’s, busiest border crossings has been privately-owned since its construction in the 1920s,” Dr. Sutcliffe noted in his recent essay. According to, Manual (Matty) Moroun and his family had a net worth of US$1.95 billion on Nov. 6 to rank 342nd on the Forbes 400 list of wealthy Americans. Mr. Moroun was born to parents of Lebanese descent in Detroit in 1927. That was the year before the birth of Mr. Howe, who in recent years has battled declining health and dementia.

Mr. Moroun’s companies have fully controlled the Ambassador Bridge since 1979. Dr. Sutcliffe wrote. “The bridge, and the money it brings in terms of tolls and sales of duty free goods and gas, is a significant part of his industrial empire as is evident from the steps he has taken to maintain his essential monopoly over trade at the Detroit River border crossing,” he added.

However, Dr. Anderson said he also thinks support for the Ambassador Bridge, as a privately owned entity, stands as a symbol to those on the political right who hold the libertarian view that government should get out the way of private enterprise — even when it comes to public infrastructure.

“I think it’s too simple to just say that the Moroun family was able to block this,” Dr. Anderson said. “I think there’s more to it than that.” A Sept. 8, 2011 Corp! magazine article posted on the Ambassador Bridge website provides plenty of insight into the opposition of the Moroun family to the bridge. The article quotes owner Matty Moroun’s son, Matthew, Vice-Chairman of Detroit International Bridge Co. Among the younger Moroun’s arguments are that traffic volumes at the Ambassador Bridge have declined in recent years, which negates the need for a new bridge. “The Ambassador Bridge’s peak traffic year was 1999 — almost 12.4 million vehicles,” the article quotes Mr. Moroun. “In 2010, 7.2 million vehicles crossed. So we assume with a 3 per cent compound annual growth rate, how many years will it take just to achieve our former peak? At the Ambassador Bridge, it would take 19 years.” Matthew Moroun went on to say that “it really boils down to ideology. Are you willing to use billions of dollars of taxpayer money to fulfill your ideological dream of not having a private sector-owned bridge?”

Old bridge running out of time

The dream of the Moroun family is to build “a new six-lane cable-stayed bridge” about 2,130 metres long and 30.5 metres west of the existing Ambassador Bridge, according to an environmental impact statement posted on the Ambassador Bridge website. While the 276-page statement refers to the existing bridge as “a majestic structure on the Windsor-Detroit sky line,” it also concedes that “it is no longer economical to operate without undertaking significant upgrades to continue to move traffic efficiently.” The bridge also lacks the FAST/NEXUS lanes requested by both U.S. and Canadian customs. Widening the bridge to accommodate those extra lanes “is not feasible,” the statement notes. Matthew Moroun told Corp! magazine that once the $1 billion new span is built, the old bridge would be renovated and reopened to traffic.

The Morouns have run into plenty of roadblocks in moving that project forward, including battling the Canadian government for environmental approval. In February, Transport Canada and Windsor Port Authority issued a statement that “the project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects” although the authorities also said “a follow-up program to verify the accuracy of the environmental assessment and/or determine the effectiveness of any measures taken to mitigate the adverse environmental effects is required for this project.” Meanwhile, the Detroit News reported Sept. 30 that the Moroun family has at least three other active challenges, including one against the U.S. Coast Guard for its refusal of a permit for the new span.

As those battles rage, with all the subtlety of a hockey brawl, the old bridge is crumbling. Several concrete chunks, one 22 inches across, fell off the bridge in October. That led the City of Windsor to close streets beneath the bridge and resulted in finger-pointing between Matthew Moroun and Windsor officials, the Detroit Free Press reported.

It’s little wonder then that Dr. Anderson said replacing the 86-year-old bridge is still needed over the long term, despite the recent fluctuations in traffic. “The government of Canada felt very strongly that it should be located down river rather than be replaced where it is,” Dr. Anderson said.

New bridge should stimulate trade

The new Gordie Howe Bridge — about two miles south of the existing Ambassador Bridge — should mean more cross-border trade, Mr. Anderson said. While he didn’t have an estimate for that impact, he said the institute is working on measuring that. “But certainly as transportation analysts, we have hundreds of studies that basically show that when you decrease the impedance between any places you’ll tend to get more (traffic) flow,” Mr. Anderson said.

For example, better infrastructure and technology at border crossings, which would be a feature of the new bridge (as well as of the new bridge the Morouns propose), would help reduce some of the competitive disadvantages of Canadian firms entering U.S. markets. “Now it makes the American producer more competitive in the Canadian market as well. But if economics has taught us one thing, it’s that efficiencies come from trade,” Dr. Anderson said.

That Canada is fronting not only the entire cost of the bridge but also the costs of related highway improvements on the U.S. side is “not a great deal for Canada,” Mr. Anderson observed. But it reflects just how important the project is to the Canadian economy.

Dr. Sutcliffe said the Windsor-Detroit crossing is an example of what political scientists call “asymmetric interdependence.” While the Canadian and U.S. economies are interdependent, trade with the much larger U.S. market is much more important to Canada than the other way around. That said, trade with Canada is very important to border states such as Michigan and Ohio. “Ohio, Illinois, a number of other state legislatures have passed resolutions in support of the Gordie Howe Bridge,” Dr. Sutcliffe said.

The publicly funded bridge has also had support in Michigan from governors representing Democrats and Republicans, even if they haven’t been able to convince the state senate to approve the project. “There’s no doubt that the governor, the Michigan governor, has been a key … without the support at that level this would be bogged down even more so than it has been,” Dr. Sutcliffe said.

Bridge is only part of the story

In tandem with the new bridge, the Ontario government is also spending about $1.4 billion on the new Herb Gray Parkway, a freeway that will connect the new bridge with highway 401. The parkway, which is almost completed, is a key companion to the bridge, Mr. Anderson pointed out. “I think what people need to understand about this crossing is that it’s not just a matter of a new bridge,” Mr. Anderson said.

While the new bridge will provide expanded capacity — three lanes each way versus two lanes each way for the Ambassador Bridge — it also provides a highway-to-highway connection that the Ambassador Bridge lacks. A joke that Mr. Anderson said he has heard since the 1980s goes that it is possible to drive all the way from Montreal to Miami and only hit 14 or 15 stops lights. The trouble is they’re all in Windsor. As a consequence, trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge from Canada have to weave through city streets in Windsor past all those traffic lights, which contributes to inevitable delays. “Having the highway-to-highway connection is as important as having a new bridge,” Anderson said.